Selling The Dark Knight


You’ve seen the scores of slick posters plastered around the city. You’ve watched and re-watched the three carefully crafted trailers and now, after almost of a year of nail biting and a piercing level of curiosity, the wait is over. This Friday audiences around the world finally get to head to the megaplex for the highly anticipated continuation in the revived Batman saga, The Dark Knight. There is really not much to say about this film that hasn’t already been said. The film is sure to be the hit of the summer and there is already posthumous Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker.

Show me a person who isn’t excited to see Batman take on the new Joker and I’ll show you a liar. Not since that mysterious teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode One was screened prior to the film Meet Joe Black has there been this much built up hype and universal excitement for a film. Not only has The Dark Knight already garnered a number of favorable reviews, not to mention talk of Ledger’s possible Oscar Nod for a super hero film that isn’t in the technical category but it’s safe to say that sequel is in line to break the record for largest opening weekend in movie history. In other words, good, bad or just mediocre, Batman is going to open big.
While much of this anticipation could be the result of the film itself–after all who doesn’t want to see what Christopher Nolan and gang have in store for round two of this brilliantly resurrected franchise–most of the buzz surrounding The Dark Knight is the product of one of the most unique and fascinating marketing campaigns for a film, ever. The film’s now inevitable success will be a testament to the powers of what a keen promotion plan can do for a film and may just pave the way for the future of blockbuster hype building.
To be fair a film like The Dark KnightStar Wars, or most of the other blockbuster giants of the past decade generally do not require clever marketing. The word of mouth and notoriety alone is enough to reel in moviegoers. In the case of The Dark Knight, the film’s predecessor Batman Begins, which primarily introduced Batman’s story, left viewers with a hell of a cliffhanger for chapter two with that glimpse of Joker’s calling card. What the minds behind The Dark Knight decided to do was hype up the vision of the film’s villain instead of the film itself. Placing more emphasis on The Joker and less on Batman himself is clever because it enables Nolan to surprise viewers with what Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman character has up his sleeve.
This campaign started as far back when the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker was announced. Speculation of who would play the sinister clown had already been swirling around the internet geek-o-sphere and the announcement of Ledger was not only baffling to most but also created a level of mystery behind what he would do with the character. While the casting of Ledger was supposedly based solely on his supposed knock out audition, and the intense level of serious method, it was also a smart move in terms of playing up the film’s shroud of mystery.
Months passed then came the viral marketing, or use of popular mediums for the masses, primarily the internet. The release of the Joker’s menacing mug shot, complete with ghastly cheek-to-cheek scars and clown makeup that would give Tim Curry’s IT character nightmares, was just what was needed to silence any qualms with the casting of Ledger. The bait was set.
What came next is what makes the marketing behind this film so unique. Rather than merely leak trailers and footage to the usual outlets–MySpace, Youtube, Aint it cool news. Etc.–the savvy PR minds created an intricate series of puzzles and reality based games for fans to dive into, all rooted around the Joker and his “Why So Serious?” tagline.
Whysoserious.com premiered featuring everything from global interactive scavenger hunts and word puzzles to hints about the film’s other major character, Harvey Dent. The clues all led to tasty little teasers about the film including film stills of the joker and his masked gang, promotional posters and even an eventual secret screening of the film’s first six minutes shown at select IMAX theaters all over the country (the same opening sequence was then shown prior to select Imax screenings of Will Smith’s film I Am Legend).
ImageWhen the first official trailer hit the web and theaters in December of last year giving wide audiences the first actual scenes with the Joker, hardcore fans and casual moviegoers alike were officially hooked. Then they made us wait. And wait some more.
Unlike other big budget success stories this year like Iron Manor the new Indiana Jones, both of which were shot and released in a short window of time and didn’t focus a lot of attention on marketing, Nolan and gang decided to hold back the film’s release thus creating even more widespread anticipation. Even before anyone had seen the film there was already a healthy level of legitimate suspense. Few films are able to pull off a stunt like this and after the handful of positive reviews chances are the suspense will pay off.
The final level of clever marketing came in the past month with Comcast, the now popular digital cable provider, giving users an entire free-to-view section dedicated to the film featuring behind the scene documentaries about the production and Chicago backdrop, all three trailers and one alternate never before seen trailer, and most curiously a series of scripted fake news reports from the fictional Gotham Tonight news program. Each ten minute fictional talk show featured interviews and reports that present viewers background information about various characters in the film including Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), crime boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Rumors even sparked that the main anchor Mike Engel (played by Sixteen Candles alum Anthony Michael Hall) may become a character of importance in future Batmaninstallments.
Earlier this summer Six Flags Great America and Six Flags Great Adventures theme parks opened separate Dark Knight roller coasters. There was even a direct to DVD animated film series (in similar vein to the Animatrix series) from various acclaimed international animators who each directed a short dedicated to filling the storyline void between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

While stunts like this might seem a bit much for a movie about a superhero the marketing campaign was fairly ingenious by giving enough hints and tastes of what’s to come to lure in the average moviegoer while also giving hardcore fans the clever puzzles and payoffs to raise their anticipation to ecstatic. The marketing behind this film went beyond the traditional advertising ploys and Happy Meal product placement of yesteryears thus making the film less of a singular entity and more of a multiple medium, fully interactive movie-going experience.
What does all this mean for films? It’s no surprise that in the magical age of CGI comic book film adaptations are the next big thing but like any other cinematic fad there are always the standout films that must raise the bar high for what audiences should expect.Batman Begins took an action franchise and turned it upside down by focusing more attention on the psychology of its characters, while also giving us a brand new, darker vision of the Batman universe that was void of the camp found in its predecessors. Consider also that The Dark Knight was innovative in being the first film out of the Hollywood canon to utilize the 60mm IMAX camera for certain scenes, a feat may also pave the way for IMAX being more than just a venue for cool nature and concert flicks.
This summer’s other big success story Iron Man followed closely by spending as much time if not more on Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark character as it did on the man in the metal suit. And with hints in both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk of the eventual Avengers film, we may be in store for yet another extensive viral marketing campaign from Marvel Films. In the age where computer technology has become such a staple element of blockbusters the true auteur must go behind simply wowing audiences visually.
On the eve of its official release The Dark Knight “experience” that has been created does just that. While we’ll have to wait a couple more days to find out if the payoff was worth all the time and attention it’s safe to say that in the post Dark Knight arena, the promotion and delivery of Hollywood films will head in radically different direction.

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